by Jia-xuan Zhang
From Film Quarterly Summer 2005, Vol. 58, No. 4
When Zhang Yimou’s Hero was first released in China in 2002, even though the dazzling beauty of its martial-arts scenes did create a sensation, many viewers were angered by what they believed to be the film’s political stand—a justification of despotism in the history of China. Nonetheless, after Hero was released in the United States in August, 2004, millions of its viewers were simply enchanted by this spectacular epic and no one (except some from the Chinese community here) seems to have felt offended by it. However Hero has been viewed by its diverse audiences, when the excitement and the anger alike have subsided, a cool mind may venture to search the film for more meaning, as the director of Judou, Raise the Red Lantern and Not One Less has never proven superficial.
At first sight, Hero does appear to differ considerably from Zhang’s previous works. From Red Sorghum (1988) to Not One Less (1999), his prior films are all set in twentieth-century China, and their narratives almost always center on characters of humble social status and their pitiable plight. The story of Hero is not only set in an entirely different period (toward the end of the third century B.C., when China was unified by her first emperor), but its protagonists, the King of Qin who succeeds in unifying China and the warriors who are involved in an attempt to assassinate him, are all prominent figures rather than everyday people. The film’s title, Hero, declares straightforwardly that this is a story about someone exceptional. But who is the hero, and what meaning does that term really suggest?
The film begins with a warrior, Nameless (Wuming), summoned to meet the King of Qin to receive a reward for, allegedly, having eliminated three warriors—Sky (Changkong), Flying Snow (Feixue), and Broken Sword (Canjian)—who are all suspected of trying to assassinate the king. The narrative unfolds in an episodic structure as the film cuts between the king’s meeting with Nameless at the court and flashbacks based on their conversation. It eventually turns out that Nameless has fabricated the story of killing the three warriors so that he can come to claim the reward at the royal court, thus having a chance to slay the king on the spot. (Sky and Flying Snow are actually his co-conspirators.) Unfortunately, the astute king sees through his fraud. Nameless, rather than feeling frustrated, is impressed by the king’s cleverness. He confesses to the king what is beyond the latter’s imagination: surprisingly, one of the three warriors, Broken Sword, has tried to stop Nameless from assassinating the king, on the grounds that he is the only man capable of unifying China and bringing peace to the people. The king is deeply touched and, after contemplating an example of Broken Sword’s calligraphy—an enormous character for “sword”—presented to him by Nameless, he has a revelation: “The ultimate goal of swordsmanship is to have no sword in either one’s hand or heart and to be at peace with the entire world. That means not to kill; that is peace!” Nameless is overwhelmed by the king’s enlightenment and determined to spare this great king, who will establish order and peace in the universe. But in order to keep his promise to his friends, Nameless has to appear to assassinate the king. We see him lunging toward the king, only to pretend to stab him. Then, dropping the sword on the floor, he says, “Your Majesty, please remember the ultimate goal, for the sake of those who sacrifice their lives for it!” As Nameless steps out of the court, we hear the guards roaring (presumably in the king’s imagination): “Enforce the law made by Your Majesty! Execute him!,” warning him not to hesitate in performing his duty as the ruler. After a moment of wavering, the king makes up his mind and Nameless is executed. Upon hearing of this, Flying Snow becomes furious with Broken Sword, as she is convinced that the failure of the mission is due solely to his interference. She challenges him to a duel. In order to show that he is as faithful to her as ever, he does not fend off her sword, and is killed. In total despair, Flying Snow stabs herself with the same sword. Such is the tragic ending of Hero. The film’s final shot presents the Great Wall standing among ranges of mountains with a subtitle explaining, “In 221 B.C., the King of Qin unified China and became the first emperor in Chinese history. After the warfare came to an end, he ordered the Great Wall built to protect his subjects from being harassed by Northern tribes.”
Viewers may leave with the impression that the film’s message is simply that abandoning the attempt to kill the King of Qin was the right thing to do, for the sake of bringing an end to the chaos in China; and that, for his feat of unifying China, the first emperor deserves to be regarded as a hero. Moreover, the four warriors not only demonstrate amazing skill in martial arts, but also prove admirable for their moral integrity, and therefore should be considered heroes as well. Nevertheless, according to historical records, the first emperor of China was unequivocally a tyrant. As China’s society has been increasingly liberalized over the past two decades or so, fewer and fewer people there still have a favorable attitude toward tyranny. It was not without reason that Hero was harshly criticized by many. Despite his success in unifying China, should the first emperor not still be held accountable for his brutality? Or, should the tyranny he represents be thus justified?
Zhang’s works are controversial in China, but, before Hero, he had never been criticized as sympathetic to autocracy. On the contrary, his previous films actually share a consistent central theme: a critical examination of the history and the cultural tradition of China,1 which has seemed to some as an offensive denigration of their own country. So what is Zhang up to this time?
First of all, except for the King of Qin, no other protagonist in the film is a real figure in historical records, and the story actually differs greatly from what is documented. We may thus view the king as an allegorical symbol of monarchy rather than as the actual historical tyrant. Secondly, although the king and the warriors, each in his or her own way, all show heroic traits, none can be regarded as a real hero in the full sense of the word, if hero means an ideal model of courage, wisdom, and nobility.
Let us first look at the warriors. As Broken Sword points out, the motive for Nameless, Sky, and Flying Snow’s attempt to assassinate the king is nothing more than their hatred for Qin as the enemy of Zhao, their own kingdom. What should be the next step after the king is deposed? They do not seem to have any idea. For Flying Snow, her hatred for Qin is simply an obsession, which finally leads to the destruction of Broken Sword’s life as well as her own, and thus she is truly like flying snow, meaninglessly fading away. Nameless seems to have a more cultivated pursuit in life. At one point, he says, “Martial arts and music … both seek a supreme realm of transcendence.” However, his search for the supreme realm does not seem to involve any specific political theory. If his mission to assassinate the king is his political goal, then such a goal without a political theory is doomed to failure, just as his mission results in his death. Nameless, therefore, does not seem to need a name, as his ambition has been reduced to naught.
Of the four warriors, Sky is the only one who survives the tragedy, but the subtitle at the end tells us: “In honor of his three friends, Sky gave up his swordsmanship for good.” Although his life continues, he is unable to see a future, seemingly suggesting that it will be a lasting vacuum (as his name, Changkong, also means in Chinese) that cannot be filled. Compared to the other warriors, Broken Sword does seem to have a more enriched intellectual life. He not only understands that swordsmanship and calligraphy share the same supreme realm (“return to innocence”), but also recognizes that, in the interest of all people under heaven, the attempt to assassinate the King of Qin should be abandoned. Thus Broken Sword can be viewed as the only warrior with some political sophistication. Nevertheless, neither Broken Sword’s political thoughts nor his supreme innocence explain why Nameless is to be executed even after his conversion; nor can they explain why the king, after he has recognized that the ultimate goal of swordsmanship is “not to kill,” still decides to execute Nameless. Broken Sword’s ideas, evidently, are incomplete, which perhaps explains his name. As for the king, for all his incomparable intelligence and might, he turns out to be unable to live up to his stated principle of “peace.” His moment of hesitation discloses a conflict in his heart: to execute Nameless is not really what he desires to do, but “to be at peace with the entire world” would not ensure him the maintenance of his power or the realization of his ambition to establish an empire. He fails to see a better choice: to be ruthless is the only way—what an awkward dilemma for this powerful king!
The limitations of these “heroes” are offered not only through these clues provided by the plot, they are also represented symbolically by certain visual devices. Each episode of the film is toned predominantly with one special color. This use of color could suggest that it is often difficult to see what is true or false. However, these exaggerated colors may also forcefully expand our perception. In the episode in which Nameless allegedly tries to annihilate Broken Sword and Flying Snow, a filter is often used to give the entire screen a red wash, and nearly all the characters are dressed in red. With all the martial-arts action, the red serves to highlight the warriors’ valiant fighting spirits, and, in turn, the bloodiness of the violence. However, red is not associated with strong intellect, which may allude to what is lacking in those warriors.
In the episode in which Broken Sword and Flying Snow practice swordsmanship and calligraphy together, and later storm the palace in order to kill the king, they are both dressed in green, commensurate with their youth. Yet their youthful vigor does not yield wisdom, as green does not really suggest profundity. In another episode, when Nameless is trying to persuade Broken Sword and Flying Snow to participate in his plan to assassinate the king, the three of them, as well as Moon (Ruyue), Broken Sword’s servant girl, are all dressed in white. And at this point, as Broken Sword has discovered his realm of transcendence, his white garb aptly echoes his inner innocence. In another sense, however, it is not always easy to draw a clear line between innocence and ignorance; thus the white color of his garb may also suggest his lack of knowledge about politics and society. Furthermore, according to traditional Chinese custom, white is a color of mourning, and thus his death seems foreshadowed. This final point can also explain why the other three are dressed in white as well. Nameless and Flying Snow both later die for their naïve idealism; Moon is left in the world only to mourn over the deceased, but her life henceforth does not seem to mean anything other than that, thus leaving her future a blank white page, not unlike the future for Sky—a lasting vacuum.
In the entire film, the king is the only character presented in a bluish tone. As a powerful leader, his political wisdom may well be reflected by the blue, which often symbolizes profundity. But his blue garb and the bluish tone used for his court are both quite dark, which hints at a dark side of this same wisdom. In addition, in front of his throne, we always see a cluster of orange candle-flames and, in many shots, the huge red character for “sword” hangs behind his throne, indicating that his wisdom is troubled by conflicts.
A compositional device provides similar telling hints. In nearly all the fight scenes, although the warriors’ martial-arts performances are a marvelous sight to behold, their figures are almost always confined within a web-like configuration, formed by columns and eaves in a courtyard, or by branches and foliage in a forest. No matter how valiant and phenomenal they may look, they never seem able to move beyond their limitations in the world. And although the king finally succeeds in conquering the other six kingdoms and becoming the supreme authority of the Qin Empire, while sitting on his throne he is always seen framed within a small space, caught between the screen behind him and the cluster of lighted candles in front. An irony is thus suggested: if he stands for an emperor’s supreme power and nothing is above this power, then he seems to be restricted by nothing but the supreme power for which he stands—the dilemma for any absolute ruler.
Moreover, in the extreme long shot presenting the king for his last appearance in the film, he is located so far away—sitting on the same throne, framed within the same small space as before—that this supreme ruler is oddly dwarfed. With his tiny figure far in the background, we cannot help feeling surprised: How could this supreme ruler appear so insignificant?
Now it becomes clear what Hero is really about: the lack of any real hero. With this in mind, the allegory of Hero leads us to a new point of view on history: while people of no consequence are often trapped in a miserable predicament (as Zhang’s previous films strongly suggest), people of consequence are also frequently trapped, although in a different type of predicament. The dilemma we often encounter in history, therefore, may be viewed as the combination of these two types of predicament. As long as society remains basically unenlightened, neither those in power nor those under that power are able to save the society from these dire straits. Many tyrannies in history, therefore, seem to result from this type of dilemma, rather than arising as morally justifiable solutions—a typical misfortune for a pre-democratic society.
The final step of our search must examine the film’s last shot. At the conclusion of Hero, the upper half of the screen shows the sky with a rising sun, while the lower half reveals the Great Wall undulating among innumerable mountain peaks. The subtitle tells us that the king has accomplished the unification of China. The rising sun manifestly announces the beginning of a new era—the founding of the Chinese empire, a triumph over the chaos of the past. But the camera immediately moves away from the sun; the promising moment does not last long. With this camera movement, the image of the Great Wall symbolically projects China’s history on the screen. For most of the dynasties, the beginning period of prosperity is unsustained, just as the rising sun is only in view momentarily, tantalizing our vain hopes. What is more, the Great Wall and the mountains are backlit, cast in shadow; the glory of the unified empire is accompanied by a feeling of darkness. In carefully reviewing the history of China since her unification by the first emperor, we must recognize that such incongruity indeed marks almost its entire history.
Now it is also clear why Hero is set in the period when the Chinese empire first came into being, over 2000 years ago. While Zhang’s previous works focus on examining the history of China over the past century or so, Hero looks back over two millennia, greatly widening our vision of history. The frustration China has experienced turns out not to be limited to the past century, the confusion in the search for modern China, but has been a theme almost since its inception. For ancient and medieval China, the frustration lies in the failure to find a sage monarch—a real hero. This is the revelation of Hero.
This treasury of meaning underlying the visual magnificence of Hero should be recognized as the overall aesthetic design for this masterpiece. Most significantly, Hero extends the track of history back to a remote period, inspiring us to take a profoundly macrocosmic view, rather than a limited vision, of history. Along the track of history reflected through Zhang Yimou’s camera, a new sign appears, heralding wider vision, broader thinking, and deeper understanding.
It is also time to acquit Hero of its alleged political betrayal. Hopefully, the film’s critics may now be convinced that the anger they have cherished is no longer necessary. Ironically, their misunderstandings seem to have been caused by none other than a very positive value of Hero: ambiguity. Ambiguity makes the meaning of the film difficult to perceive, but should be considered an important criterion of high-quality art.
Based on the same criterion, The Emperor’s Shadow (Zhou Xiaowen) and The Emperor and the Assassin (Chen Kaige), both of which exploit the same subject (China’s first emperor), can hardly be rated as highly as Hero. Although the messages of both films are strong (and they happen to be almost identical)—that desirable or not, political success and ruthlessness go hand in hand—the messages are conveyed in obvious ways. For both films, neither the narratives of the stories nor the visual representations on the screen seem to suggest much ambiguity. In this sense, neither film shows much potential for multivalent meaning, and it is difficult to find in them the same kind of depth in historical viewpoint as that in Hero.
Martial-arts films are generally known for their entertainment value: exciting fight scenes, romanticized violence, nicely choreographed martial-arts movements, idealized courage and integrity, and happy endings. Appealing as these films may be, intellectual sophistication is usually not their concern. Prior to Hero, there had been only a limited number of films in this genre that ever demonstrated some intellectual quality. Nonetheless, even for those more sophisticated ones, such as A Touch of Zen (King Hu, 1969) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000), the meanings that can be found, in either the stories or the cinematic techniques, are hardly as profound as those of Hero. With its powerful intellectual energy and its highly sophisticated artistic devices, Hero gloriously breaks into new territory for this genre, and moves its frontier greatly beyond its old border. Indeed, Hero may well claim a unique title for itself: “Hero.”
1. Over the past century or so, China has been persistently struggling toward an ambitious goal to modernize her ancient society, and no doubt, in many ways, significant progress has been made. Yet, despite its remarkable achievements, China’s society has always been haunted by a demonic shadow of history; the age-old tradition of China, like an omnipresent specter, never fails to reemerge in new forms after each major attempt to reform or revolutionize the society; the exalted goal of a bright future is yet to be reached after so many sacrifices have been made for it. This puzzling predicament is, in fact, the central theme of China’s modern history, and it is also the consistent theme of Zhang’s films prior to Hero. However, this theme in those films is mostly not explicitly manifested in the narratives of the stories but, rather, implicitly represented through highly symbolic cinematic signs.
Jia-xuan Zhang was born in Beijing, China and received a master’s degree in cinema studies at New York University in 1985. Since then he has been working in New York City as a freelance film critic, translator, photographer, and Chinese calligrapher. He also teaches Chinese cinema at CUNY and New School University.